Physical education is movement education

Children learn to walk and talk without a teacher. They understand the world through movement exploration. So, what is the problem with leaving movement training up to a natural process as well? Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to see we have a problem. Children often can’t skip, roll, or throw. Adults struggle to get out of a chair and find no joy in physical activity.

It makes sense when we realize that we live in a movement impoverished society. Getting around in our world is rarely interesting. We don’t have to dodge or duck to get to work; swim to get to the refrigerator; or climb to get to school. We don’t wrestle to learn about survival or dance with our friends to entertain or express cultural values. We sit and have it all laid out in front of us.

» Learn more: This week’s July GAIN Master Class focuses on physical education. GAIN also recently launched the GAIN PE newsletter which provides free insights, videos, and more about PE.

The world is a boring place for our bodies. It does not teach and challenge us like it once did. Now, there is no malicious intent here. We naturally conserve energy and intelligently work to make things easier and better. So, we need to teach ourselves and our children how to move well so we will move often and in interesting ways.

The case for PE

The primary and by far the most important job of physical education is to teach students to move well; the subject’s name gets it right. It educates people physically. There are many other things that PE can teach, but if we don’t get that right we are letting down the students and society. Many people make the case for PE in terms of a consumable or physically quantifiable outcome. The goal is for students to  do more push-ups, run faster, or farther. Those may be worthwhile goals, but they are secondary to creating a physically more competent person, who will feel better about themselves and be comfortable in their skin. It will lead to wellbeing. Our society owes that to every individual.

Of late, physical literacy has caught the attention of many in education and sport. It has many worthy goals: motivation and enjoyment; confidence and self-concept; movement competence, and valuing physical movement, but I see no difference in these goals than the goals a quality physical education program would not work to achieve.  The foundation of physical literacy is that the mind can’t be separated from the body. This is not a new concept. Ester Thalan argued in her dynamic systems theory of childhood development that the mind and body are an intertwined complex self organizing system. You can’t have a mind without a body or vice versa. It is an embodied system as Gerald Edleman argued in his book Wider than the Sky.

When we move we are training both and both act in conjunction. We create a concrete relationship between the world and our minds. We build our body as a complex movement system. We create concrete memories that are intrinsically connected to the world on multiple levels that build complex actions e.g. we learn to crawl, which strengthens our body and strengthens the complex system that leads to our first steps which leads us to run. In a sense it is the shared memory of all of the interconnected systems of the body. There is no golden spot in the brain that controls a movement or skill. It truly is a symphony of movement with the mind, body, and environment. It is movement/physical education that is needed. It is simple, no need to complicate things with unnecessary baggage or new names to describe it.

PE is about smoothness, not sport

Okay, what are the memories and structures that we are working to build/teach? We know from Wilder Penrose’s early work, now refined and expanded upon, that the brain and specific neurons map the body in a somatosensory map.  A concert violinist has more neurons devoted to their hands and soccer players would have more to their feet as well as sophisticated space awareness areas mapping the pitch. The brain also maps the world with place and grid cells, so we know where our body is in space. If we are fortunate to have a massive vertical jump, we would be able to map a world around the rim of a basketball hoop that most could only imagine. If we had the skeletal and muscular structure to squat 200 kilograms that would create a very different somatosensory map compared to a ballerina. But, we would have to put the time around the basketball rim, on our pointe shoes, or throwing around heavy objects to allow the mind to develop the space and body awareness systems to support these types of activities.

So given this, what are we trying to accomplish with physical education? We are working to develop a more sophisticated body and mind that will allow children and adults to move smoothly with more precision. I use this term smoothness from John Keily. We are working to expand on the student’s current body structure and somatosensory maps to make more complex and useful movements/actions. Physical education goal is to teach students to move better and smoother, it is that simple.

For many years physical education meant sport education. Students could just play soccer, basketball, wrestle, swim, or do gymnastics; a combination of sports would make for a well rounded mover. Unfortunately, sport education is rarely that well rounded, and the students lacking basic movement skills or motivation get little benefit out of this type of curriculum.

How about dance, which is focused on moving the body artistically? Does it help that one is expressive rather than competitive? Now, I am getting a bit off track here. It is easy to go down this rabbit hole. The problem is that the goal of these disciplines and sports is to be good at the sport or art. The objective isn’t for a person’s wellbeing. Now, sport and dance are a cultural gift. We are blessed to have them, long live sport and dance, but they are not for everyone. And again, the goal of these are not the health and well being of the participants. The students that excel are typically those that already move well and self-select for sport and dance.

Where to start

Because of our movement impoverished culture we need to physically educate ourselves. But what should we do? Physical education is being pulled in many directions: physical literacy, teaching games for understanding (TGfU), and high intensity fitness. Sports is performance based and in many cases just weeds out poor movers rather than develops good movers. Where do we start?

One starting point is to break down the problem into basic movements squat, lunge, push, pull, brace, rotate, hinge, and bend as advocated by coaches like Kelvin Giles and Vern Gambetta. I would also add tuck, extend, and roll to those. You see these movement elements in life and sport. Teach those well, add variation and progression, and you are well on your way to developing a physically competent person. Physical education is a long road, but it starts with some simple building blocks.